To commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic on the 15th of April 1912, ITV1 presents Titanic, a new four-part drama from Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes with a multi-star cast including Linus Roache and Geraldine Somerville.
Last week we went along to its launch at the London Film Museum for a preview of the opening episodes and a press conference.
With the re-release of James Cameron’s Titanic in 3D and another 12-part TV serial, Titanic: Blood and Steel, set to air in April this year, it seems there’s no limit to producers’ faith in popular fascination with the almost-legendary tragedy of the ‘unsinkable’ ship.
Writer Julian Fellowes, a self-confessed ‘Titanorak’, explains the story’s enduring popularity this way: ‘When I was young people used to say that when the survivors who were on board were dead interest would fade but this hasn’t proven to be the case. It’s something about man against nature – when man is proud enough to think he can defeat nature and nature invariably defeats him – there’s something sort of part of our mythic centre there.’
But isn’t there the tiniest danger of overkill? Director Jon Jones is keen to emphasize that there’s more than one way to recount an event as famous as the sinking of the Titanic. ‘This is not about remaking the James Cameron film because the Titanic is iconic in its own way.’
Fellowes describes his own approach to telling the story of the tragic ship: ‘James Cameron’s movie was … a wonderful film. But that’s a love story set against the sinking of the Titanic. Whereas we, right from the start, set out to tell the story of the whole ship.’
True to its creators’ aims, ITV1’s Titanic has multiple overlapping stories and a non-linear narrative as the days and hours leading up to the disaster are replayed again and again but from the perspectives of people from every strata of Edwardian society – on the upper deck the Earl and Countess of Mounton, an aristocratic couple with a suffragette daughter, then in subsequent episodes the Earl’s lawyer and his embittered wife in second class, and in steerage an Italian steward seeking a better life for himself in the New World, an impoverished Irish Catholic family and so on.
Some of the characters, like the Mountons, are fictional while others – for instance, Second Officer Lightoller (Steven Waddington) and Harry Widener (Noah Reid), who courts the Mountons’ daughter – are historical characters whose behaviour, in the case of Lightoller, has been both criticized and admired.
‘I was fascinated and haunted by the idea of the Titanic as that world of hubris,’ reveals Fellowes. ‘That magnificent empire, those kings and queens… the whole of that world was on the edge of a cliff and it didn’t know it.’
With its depictions of luxury and fragility and its displays of drawing-room warfare, notably between the confined and frustrated female characters of the upper and middle decks, Titanic has premonitory echoes of that larger tragedy, the First World War, that in only two more years would usher in the demise of the characters’ rarefied yet brutal society.
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Watch a behind-the-scenes video…